In Kashmir, inshallah, there will be football

NEW DELHI, India — When Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar traveled to Kashmir for the
first time, in 2009, to research a possible feature film, he discovered a true story that was more inspiring than fiction. He dropped everything and settled in to make a documentary.

Next month, the resulting film, "Inshallah, Football" will premiere at the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival in Korea. The documentary tells the story of a young Argentinean coach who founds a soccer academy in Srinagar to bring so-called "stone pelters" off the killing streets and onto the soccer field. He places many of his players with local professional leagues.

But when he manages to get the team captain an opportunity to train with a professional club in Spain, Kashmir's troubled history emerges to block his efforts, as the government of India denies the boy a passport because two decades earlier his father had joined a militant separatist struggle for an independent Kashmir. At the eleventh hour, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah intervenes on the boy's behalf.

"It's the story of three remarkable men — one is his father who fought for his beliefs, another about the football coach who's come all the way from Argentina to start this football academy, and this young man who is struggling to play football," said Kumar.

That was a summer of hope. When I spoke with coach Juan Marcos Troia (aka "Marco") shortly after Kumar finished filming in 2009, Marco told me happily that his International Sports Academy Trust had trained about 1,000 young men from all over Kashmir — taking at least 50 from the armies of stone-throwing street protesters that plague local police.

He'd stuck it out even after he'd been beaten up by soldiers on the street just five minutes away from the soccer field, after they stopped him for questioning and suspected that he was only pretending to be a foreigner. He'd brought his wife and two daughters with him to Kashmir. The two girls attended school in Srinagar, despite soldiers and curfews, like ordinary Kashmiris. And Marco believed he was making a difference.

"I have seen how it [soccer] is helping to change the mentality of some of the officials in the government and how it's changing the mentality of the people," Troia said at the time. "It's very interesting to see in only two-and-a-half years, how much our program has helped not only football, but also the development of the society."

This summer, as Kumar readies his film, "Inshallah, Football" for Pusan, that hope has been crushed. Spiraling out of control since June, Kashmir seems locked into an escalating pattern of violence, as local residents take to the streets to protest the deaths of innocent civilians, only to see more of their number gunned down by the security forces. Over the past two months, more than 60 civilians have been killed, most of them teenagers. Sport is the last thing on anybody's mind, as local journalists bitterly describe decades-long careers as nothing more than "obituary writing."

"Everything has completely stopped," Kumar told me in a recent phone interview. "There's no chance of anybody getting anywhere. Marco had trained about 1,000 boys and he had them playing in professional leagues. The idea was to send all 11 players to train in Brazil on a scholarship. But in essence, I think the program has ground to a halt."

That makes his film more important than ever. And selection for the Pusan festival promises to attract a wider audience for a story that Kumar hopes will cut through what he describes as a simplistic, blinkered attitude about Kashmir.

"For me, it's a great opportunity," Kumar said. "It's Asia's biggest festival, and it's the right kind of place to show a film like this because it opens up a debate about Asia."

Following the lives of 18-year-old Basharat Bashir and his former militant father, "Inshallah, Football" offers an unusually hopeful perspective on Kashmir's cycle of violence.

But the contemporary events that now form the backdrop for its release make the hope it offers bittersweet. This summer's deadly confrontations have illustrated tragically that, where Kashmir is concerned, India keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Thus, even as the Indian government struggles to win the loyalty of Kashmiris, the film illustrates, it is undermined at every turn by its inability to trust in its own democratic ideals.

And instead of a cricket bat or a soccer ball, local boys pick up stones to throw at the police.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the name of the film, "Inshallah, Football."